Rebecca James’ Woman in the Mirror represents a return to classic gothic fiction in many ways, and a proof that that storytelling style still has some vitality to it. The book is filled with classic mysteries, questionable supernatural occurrences, loves real and false, hopeless and destined. Featuring a plot that spans time from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, the story centers around one estate, and the women involved with the family that inhabit it. Yet connections between times do exist, some predictable and others somewhat less so.
The story centers on a woman in whichever time period a passage takes place in, although which woman varies wildly. In the present-day It centers on a young entrepreneur named Rachel, an orphan who has worked her way up to owning a gallery and is in a non-serious relationship with a millionaire named Aaron. In sections that largely take place in the late 1940s, the story centers on a woman named Alice, working as a governess with a very complicated past. Those short sections in the mid-nineteenth century center on another woman, though she perhaps gets the least time for the reader to become familiar with her.
The tale begins with a short prologue in the distant past, featuring a woman looking at a painting, knowing she has been betrayed by a man that she had fallen for, and thinking how it was intended as a gift for him. This quickly spins forward to cover other times and other women, but a reader does not quite forget the prologue and the tone it sets. This leads to a narrative that rotates between multiple times and protagonists, each with her own goals and hazards to face, and all intersecting at a single location.
The destructive nature of money is a subtle element of this book, but a definite one. Generations of women are attacked directly and indirectly by the ambition and status of the men near them, and as a result there is no small degree of suffering, often across generational lines. Indeed, even the potential supernatural threat is born out of the actions of men wanting something belonging to women. Romance comes across as negative, though not entirely so, throughout the story, with a mix of men for different reasons getting involved with our lead women.
This story is very much of the “is it supernatural or not” school of gothic fiction, featuring a set of increasingly strange and disturbing incidents that could technically be explained via mundane means, yet seem strangely coincidental in many cases, and disturbing in either event. It is a difficult line to cross, and in most stories featuring it a reader can quickly pick up on whether or not the goings on will really involve anything paranormal. This book, more than many others, kept readers guessing.
Like many good gothic novels, there is an old manor house which is itself something of a character, filled with gloom and portents and just the tiniest hints of something beyond all of that. Rebecca James proves better than many at keeping the reader guessing. The nature of the concern, there being something strange about the house, could easily come from its origins. In spite of its reputation, each individual finds something they want at the house, although not always the same element. They also lose something in the process, often far more than they gain. While the unfortunate turns of the women near and in the household are not necessarily supernatural, other factors might lead the reader to entertain the possibility. The behavior of the children in the 1940s section further pushes the idea up something fundamentally wrong with the place, whether a series of traumas or actual supernatural interference. Further, the reader has the opening moments constantly in their mind, which could easily explain a supernatural malice.
On the subject of romance, there are three major romantic leads in the book. One for Alice and two for Rachel. Aaron and Jake are the potential romantic leads in Rachel’s time period, one a rich man she has had a long-term casual relationship with and the other local to her ancestral home. It is again to Rebecca James’ credit that the story doesn’t make it too obvious from the outset which individual is going to capture her heart, or indeed how this burgeoning love triangle will resolve at all. At the outset both men have positive and negative traits, and Rachel has little thought of either of them are showing emotional and romantic interest.
The love interest for Alice, Captain Jonathan Winterbourne, owns the manor and estate and is a widower. Alice is brought to the estate to serve as a governess for his children, a pair of fraternal twins. The children show a quick affection for her, and she for them, as well as an increasing interest in their father. He for his part is stern, damaged by World War II and by the loss of his wife. He is concerned in many ways with the upbringing of his children, yet is also fairly distant with them due to both class and his own set of tragedies.
This was a most enjoyable volume. Woman in the Mirror is easy to recommend to anyone who might be looking for a gothic novel, particularly one that manages to elevate itself beyond what is expected in that genre. Each of our lead women is believable, with complex motivations and backstories. The plot twists and keeps the reader guessing, new revelations coming into place that are simultaneously believable and often unexpected. The prose is effective, not so flowery as to drive the reader away, but not so sparse that it feels inappropriate for a gothic story. Rebecca James has given fans of the genre an excellent addition in this volume.